Enabling Reinvention

Robert Wood’s Interview with Executive Director, Dirk Van Velzen

Incarcerated student Robert Wood interviewed the PSF’s Executive Director, Dirk Van Velzen. We welcome your responses to the conversation.

Robert Lee Wood: What was the inspiration behind the Prison Scholar Fund and what gave you the courage and drive to not only seek education for yourself but also for other incarcerated individuals, in most cases, whom you’ve never even met?

Dirk Van Velzen: I was really inspired by those around me. During my journey, I discovered that there were many others, just like myself, who would pursue an education if they could. They just didn’t have the necessary funding. Eventually I was lucky. My father was able to step in and pay for my tuition, but luck should have zero role in effective rehabilitation programs. I had always wanted to pursue my college degree but had trouble carving out enough time before prison. That’s one thing about prison, you have plenty of time on your hands, you just need to find a productive way to use it.

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently pointed out: “Prisons were not supposed to be a warehouse,” he said. “It was not supposed to be, ‘We’re going to take you and put you in a warehouse for 10 years and lock you up, and then take you out in 10 years and return you to society and think maybe you’re going to be the better for it.’”

“It was supposed to be about rehabilitation,” Cuomo added. “It was supposed to be an opportunity to help people. We lost that somewhere along the way.”

RLW: In addition to finding productive ways to use your time, you helped create the ability for many other incarcerated people to use their time productively through college education with help of the Prison Scholar Fund. How hard was it to start something so amazing while still incarcerated and what was your very first step on this journey towards social entrepreneurship?

DVV: The PSF was a long journey, over many years. I initially started the PSF to fund my own education. When I landed in prison in 2000, I thought I’d simply get the Pell grant and be on my way. That’s when I discovered that the Pell grant had been taken away from prisoners by the Congress in 1994. I know that you can imagine, Robert, the frustration of wanting to change your life, of wanting to reinvent yourself, only to find that there are virtually no resources and very few relevant programs available. That drives you. To change yourself, to find a solution.

So back in 2000, I wrote around 600 letters to churches, charities, businesses, associations, clubs, everyone I could think of, for help with tuition. I only received one response back, which was negative. Then I created calendars made with drawings from incarcerated artists. While they were available for sale online, we had trouble marketing them and they were ultimately unsuccessful. After years of this struggle, I reconnected with my father who stepped and offered to pay my tuition.

But it was during this adventure that I noticed the many others who would do the same thing if given the chance. When my father provided funding for my tuition, I pivoted the PSF into a funding solution for other inmates.

RLW: How important has your education been in readjusting to society and getting your life back on track while still staying true to your social vision to continue helping others at the same time?

DVV: I truly hope that I can explain how incredibly important education has been in my life. I feel that I have been well-prepared for success out of prison in different ways: (1), from a frame-of-mind standpoint—my role in society. And (2), specific skills—like financial literacy and business know-how. It all bodes quite well when it comes to forwarding the mission of the social enterprise that I founded. It’s nice to be able to add value in all sorts of different situations.

RLW: Dirk, it sounds like you made excellent use of your time and gained not only education, but also social insight. How did the unique combination of incarceration and education change your life and your worldview?

DVV: Incarceration gives a person a fantastic opportunity to decide what it is that’s truly important to him or her in life, and also to humanize the many others that have found themselves in that particular situation. Prison education and reform would probably not have been an issue that I would have focused on, had I not come to prison myself. Yet, mass incarceration and recidivism are major problems in America, especially as we relate to other countries. It saddens and motivates me to help drive the change that will create a country we can all be proud of.

RLW: Did you experience a lot of negativity and doubt from others when you began the Prison Scholar Fund, and if so, how did you overcome those things?

DVV: The simple mission of the PSF was audacious when I launched it from prison. I was basically asking people to give a prisoner money to help educate other prisoners. None of the negativity concerned me. I just kept on pushing forward. As crazy as it sounds, it worked. From behind bars, we raised almost $60k, enough funds to award 191 scholarships to inmates inspired to change their lives through education.

RLW: What would you say to someone who says education doesn’t make a difference once you have a conviction on your record?

DVV: Education makes a huge difference, especially if you have a conviction on your record. A 2014 RAND study shows that through correctional education the odds of coming back to prison decrease by 43% and the odds of landing a job post-release increase by 13%. Additionally, some years back, Devah Pager at Princeton published her dissertation entitled “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” which shows that employers are far more likely hire a person with a criminal conviction if they have some college under their belt.

RLW: What is the biggest reward of giving back to society by helping rehabilitate people through the Prison Scholar Fund?

DVV: The reward of giving back to society is found on many fronts. The dollar value to society of prisoner education is staggering. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, every dollar invested in prisoner education returns $19.62 in reduced victim costs, policing costs, criminal justice costs, and future prison construction and incarceration costs. It’s an outstanding return on investment. It’s thus nice to know that through our efforts we can repay some of the damage that we’ve done.
But the human value is something else, quite distinct. We’re saying that as a country we value our citizens and believe in education for all. As a society we won’t create an underclass through draconian policy; instead, we uplift and support our people to be reach their full potential. How do you quantify the value of humanity or building human capital?

RLW: Those are staggering statistics you included with your responses to the last two questions. As you look around in society and talk to different people, do they understand the enormity of the need to educate our incarcerated populations in the United States so that people reenter society as assets instead of liabilities?

DVV: Sometimes. Some people are absolutely shocked by the statistics and America’s mass incarceration problem. Others are more informed and are well aware of the enormity of the problem. Still, few know the potential value of educating our nation’s prisoners. This new awareness is likely helped today because mass incarceration is now a much-discussed issue. For example, President Obama was our very first President to visit a prison, and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also recently visited California’s San Quentin prison to check out its coding program, Code.7370, that teaches inmates to code. Zuckerberg became aware of our Nation’s mass incarceration problem after reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” Prisoners and prisoner education is on the front burner and a problem we need to deal with.

RLW: Dirk, what are your plans for the future of PSF?

DVV: Our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is to provide quality educational programming for every inmate in America, which is a market that we estimate to be well over $250 million in annual expenditures. This educational access can take a few different forms. We will expand the program we currently operate, where we provide funding for correspondence courses that inmates can complete independently. We are building a locally cached “online” degree program in partnership with the University of Washington that will offer a bachelor’s degree in Integrated Social Sciences, because internet connectivity is unavailable to prisoners due to security concerns. We are partnering with Code Fellows, which will teach inmates full-stack programming, skills extremely-highly sought in today’s labor market. And to facilitate these programs, we’re also partnering with Edovo to provide secure tables for the inmates to use in their living units for educational programs.

RLW: Can you personally see the surprise when people find out you’re an ex-inmate whom rehabilitated yourself through your own education and voluntary service to others?

DVV: Yes.

RLW: How important is service to others as a component your life as a whole, through PSF, and in various other aspects of your life and how important and rewarding can service be to others whom wish to rehabilitate themselves?

DVV: Service to others has become such an integral part of my life and my occupation that I don’t see it as a separate component. It’s just who I am and what I do. You become what you practice. Or as Aristotle reminded us, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Others value our services tremendously. We have volumes of letters and an outpouring of thanks from those we’ve supported. One of my favorite letters is from Kurt Danysh, a Prison Scholar in Pennsylvania who shared with us, “The Prison Scholar Fund means I have a future. It means I have options. But above all else, it means I have hope. The Prison Scholar Fund believed in me and now I believe in myself.” I used his words at the Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition this October when I introduced the PSF to about 1,000 people at Seattle’s McCaw Hall. Based on the feedback that I have received, I’d say that Kurt’s sentiment critically conveyed the importance of our work. Kurt helped us take first place and the funding that came along with the win.

RLW: I’d like to take this opportunity to also commend Kurt Danish. His comments were brilliant and ring very true. Now, speaking of service to others Dirk, you’re starting to get more recognition for your extraordinary service through PSF. I know it’s not important to you on a personal level but it does really help PSF’s mission so it’s very important in that regard. You recently had a radio interview with KUOW, an NPR affiliate, and, as you mentioned, the PSF was awarded funding from an excellent organization called SVP which supports social entrepreneurship. Is there a way people can hear or read the radio interview and view the video of the SVP pitch which I understand was recently released?

DVV: We’ve posted all the media to our website, www.prisonscholars.org. The SVP vid can also be found on YouTube by searching for my name or the Prison Scholar Fund. Additionally, the KUOW radio interview can be found on its website when and if it airs and is posted, under David Hyde who interviewed me: http://kuow.org/people/david-hyde.

RLW: Dirk, I don’t know why someone hasn’t nominated you to be a CNN Hero. You’re an amazing social entrepreneur and I look forward to interviewing you again as soon as new and exciting things happen with you and PSF. Keep up the good work. Thank you.

DVV: Thank you Robert. I’ve enjoyed chatting with you. And all media is good media, especially given its ability to forward our mission.


Robert Wood, our Social Media Advisor, is a volunteer for the PSF. His Tweets can be found on Twitter, @prisonscholars, account under the hashtag #RLW_PSF. He can be reached via any of our social media outlets or emailed at the following address: rlw@prisonscholars.org.

If you’d like to hear more from Robert, please sign up for our quarterly newsletter, where he is a valued contributor. Just submit your name and email address. If you’d like to get involved with the PSF in a volunteer capacity, please email us volunteer@prisonscholars.org.

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